Blog entries, commentaries, and statements from WOLA’s Colombia team

In a nation on edge, officials are in denial

September 18, 2020

It was stunning to see, over the past weekend, top Colombian officials start pushing the narrative that “the ELN and FARC dissidents” were behind last week’s confrontations between police and thousands of citizens all over Bogotá. This seems bizarre and removed from reality, but they continue to promote it.

A September 8 mobile phone video showed Bogotá police administering repeated electric shocks to Javier Ordóñez, a lawyer in his 40s, as he begged them to stop. Ordónez died of blows to his skull later, in police custody. The images triggered citywide protests on September 9 and 10. Some of them were violent: the police reported nearly 200 agents wounded, and 54 CAIs—small posts set up as a “community policing” model around the city—were defaced, vandalized, or destroyed.

These numbers would have been lower had the police employed their profession’s “lessons learned” about crowd control, practicing de-escalating techniques. Instead, they did the opposite: they escalated aggressively.

Police in Bogotá and the poor neighboring municipality of Soacha killed 13 people on the nights of the 9th and 10th, and wounded 66, some of them with firearms. Widely shared videos showed cops beating and kicking people who were already on the ground, shooting rubber bullets into subdued people at pointblank range, and discharging their firearms indiscriminately. Bogotá Mayor Claudia López, whose direct orders to the police were ignored, gave President Iván Duque a 90-minute video compiling citizen-recorded examples of this brutality.

You’d think that the people running Colombia right now would want to treat what happened last week very seriously. They’re governing one of the most unequal societies on the planet, and it’s on the edge right now. In Bogotá, a city of 8 million, people in the middle, working, and “informal sector” classes were already angry at stagnating living standards and an out-of-touch government. Last November, they participated in the most massive protests that the city had seen in more than 40 years (which the police also, at first, escalated violently).

Their situation has grown desperate after a six-month pandemic lockdown that pushed millions out of work (or out of informal-sector subsistence), and back into poverty. People are hurting. Anxiety, stress, and mental health issues are off the charts. The police, too, are frayed after enforcing semi-quarantine for so many months.

With all that going on, if a foreign analyst were to claim that last week’s protests were the artificial result of “guerrillas” or coordinated agitators, the proper response would be “you don’t understand this country, and its complexities, at all.” It defies all belief that the ELN and FARC dissidents could have orchestrated an uprising in Bogotá on the scale of what we saw on September 9 and 10. But that is the narrative that officials like Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo and Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos are pushing.

As Ariel Ávila of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation said, if that were true, it would’ve been the guerrillas’ largest coordinated operation in Bogotá in the armed conflict’s history. Today, the ELN has 2,400 members and a support network of another 4,000 or 5,000. Over 20 “dissident” groups led by former FARC members, which often fight each other and the ELN, have a cumulative membership of 2,600 plus about 2,000 in support networks. These 11,000-12,000 people are scattered across several vast rural regions in Colombia and Venezuela. Their urban presence is minimal: most have probably never seen one of Colombia’s major cities.

They do have toeholds in Bogotá, and some of their members may have participated in, and egged on, crowds in some of the Bogotá protest actions. But this disunited collection of bands, most of them focused on narcotrafficking and illegal rent-seeking, are obviously not the masterminds of what happened in Bogotá.

There were no masterminds. There is, instead, a population pushed to the edge by economic uncertainty and a perception that the government doesn’t care. For most, emergency assistance has totaled only about US$40 to US$70 since COVID-19 measures began. More often, their interaction with government has been with the police enforcing lockdowns, at times harshly. The likelihood of a social explosion has been one triggering event away. There’s no need for guerrillas to manage it.

Taking this reality seriously, though, is hard, especially for people in the thick-walled bubble of Colombia’s clase dirigente. The sectores populares—the poor and lower-middle class, and the middle class who have fallen into poverty during the pandemic—are so distant as to be abstract. When you’ve placed your faith in the free market, in a technocratic oligarchy, and—if that fails—in the security forces, then it’s hard to stare in the face of a reality like “an immense number of people are hungry, scared, frustrated, and angry at you.”

These people need empathy right now. But Colombia’s political system isn’t set up for empathy, especially not under its current management. Instead, police fired indiscriminately into fleeing crowds as though they’d never had a day of training in their lives. That response calls into question the viability of institutions. It calls into question the assumptions underlying longstanding economic and security policies.

Instead of empathy, leaders are reaching for the tried-and-true “it was the guerrillas” narrative. It’s a common reflex. Here in the United States, factotums at the White House and Homeland Security don’t lose an opportunity to blame anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests on fictional or marginal “anarchist” or “Antifa” groups. Though most people don’t believe that, it’s rich fodder for a large minority whose views come from what they read and share on FOX News, Facebook, and WhatsApp.

In Colombia it’s the same thing, but mixed in with a perverse nostalgia for the armed conflict and its simplicity. For decades, guerrillas gave Colombia’s political elite a perfect go-to excuse whenever elements of civil society came forward with strong grievances. Just label them as terrorists, (or “spokespeople for terrorists” in Álvaro Uribe’s famous phrase): people aligned with the FARC, which until 2016 was Colombia’s largest guerrilla group by far. It usually worked: social movements had the oxygen (in the form of media attention and legitimacy in mainstream public opinion) sucked out of them.

When the FARC disappeared along with the peace accord, though, so did that convenient scapegoat. Today, when politicians want to de-legitimize a political adversary, the collection of bands now active in the countryside just isn’t as compelling. But apparently, that’s not going to stop them from trying.

Bogotanos say they’ve never seen this face of the government before. “Police shooting in the streets of Bogotá at fleeing people, like rabbits from a hunter,” writes veteran columnist and author Cecilia Orozco in El Espectador. “Even those of us who are older don’t remember having seen, in urban scenarios, such openly defiant conduct from state agents who aren’t hiding their identities.”

Colombians of a different social class, of course, see that on a regular basis. Indigenous people in Cauca say it’s common. So do displaced Afro-descendant communities in marginal neighborhoods like Aguablanca, Cali. Communities opposing forced illicit crop eradication are constantly documenting cases of aggression and inappropriate force.

This kind of authoritarianism and arbitrariness, of escalation and lack of empathy, has long marked poor and marginalized parts of Colombia. What’s new, perhaps, is its abrupt arrival in Bogotá’s middle and working class neighborhoods. And it’s happening just as the pandemic knocks millions out of the middle class (back) into poverty.

Think about that. Already, many Colombian analysts are sounding alarms about mounting authoritarianism. They see a weakening of checks and balances: a narrow congressional majority for the ruling party built with political favors, close presidential allies now in charge of the prosecutor’s office and other oversight bodies, and an ongoing assault on the independent judiciary that intensified after ex-President Uribe was put under house arrest in early August.

A backlash is underway from the people running Colombia, the people who are so slow to show empathy, but so quick to deny reality with fairy tales about guerrillas orchestrating mass protests. Last week gave us a vicious preview of what that backlash might look like once it consolidates.

New national protests are called for Monday. Even though neither the ELN nor guerrilla dissidents are in evidence, don’t expect a democratic or reasoned response on the streets of Bogotá.

Tags: Bogotá, Human Rights, Politics of Peace

International and Colombian Organizations Advise the United Nations Security Council to Enhance Verification of the 2016 Peace Accord

September 4, 2020

On August 26, the United Nations Security Council received a statement, signed by WOLA and a wide array of Colombian and international organizations, advising the council’s members to ensure the complete implementation of the final peace accord signed by the Colombian State and the FARC. 

The statement underscores the Colombian government’s lack of political will to comprehensively fulfill the final peace accord. This weak approach has resulted in significant delays in achieving the accord’s goals of comprehensive rural reform, political participation, substitution of illicit crops, and dismantling of organized crime. 

To enable the full implementation of the final peace accord, the organizations recommend:

  • A security and vigilance plan that guarantees the lives and physical integrity of individuals undergoing reintegration and the victims of the armed conflict.
  • Continued implementation of the differentiated gender focus included in the final peace accord.
  • Verification of Resolution 2532 that calls on those still armed to abide by a multilateral ceasefire that provides humanitarian relief to violently targeted rural, ethnic communities.

You can read the original, Spanish statement here.

The English text is below:

The organizations and platforms signed would like to express our gratitude to the United Nations, Secretary-General António Guterres, countries belonging to the Security Council, and the Verification Mission on Colombia for supporting the Final Peace Accord for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace, signed November 2016, and for verifying its implementation, especially points 3.2 and 3.4 which concern the End of the Armed Conflict.

We recognize that the disarmament of the FARC’s former guerilla and the more than 13 thousand people currently undergoing the reintegration process are important steps forward. However, three and a half years have passed since the start of the final accord’s implementation, and four months since the official declaration of the social emergency caused by the pandemic. We have observed with profound concern the national government’s lack of political will to implement the peace accord. We can support this claim with the testimonies of communities and national and international verification reports. We have confirmed that most ex-combatants do not have land to work on and significant delays in the relative points of Comprehensive Rural Reform (part 1), political participation (part 2), the dismantling of organized crime (part 3), the substitution of illicit crops (part 4) and the institutional conditions that guarantee the implementation and monitoring of the accord (part 6).

Militarized presence in the territories fails to secure the life and liberties of citizens and peace. In Colombia, since the signing of the final peace accord and up until July 15, 2020, 971 social leaders and 215 individuals undergoing the reintegration process have been assassinated in these militarized zones. In other zones with territorial perimeter controls, criminality and the power of various armed groups has increased. 

We advocate for respecting and fully implementing the final peace accord signed by the Colombian State and the FARC; the adoption of effective measures that guarantee reintegration; the due functioning of the agreed instances in the agreement like the CSIVI, which monitor implementation and the security guarantees of individuals undergoing reintegration; and the National Security Guarantees Commission, for the full completion of the mandate concerning the dismantlement of groups and conduct that threaten the country’s social leaders.

With the purpose of completely fulfilling the final peace accord and recognizing the important monitoring task that the Verification Mission–created by the UN Security Council–has accomplished for Colombia, we solicit the renovation of the mandate and the explicit inclusion of:

1) Verifying the fulfillment of sanctions by the Peace Tribunal of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) for all parties, which is included in part 5.1.2, numeral 53 d) of the final accord. The sites where sanctions will be implemented, in addition to the security and vigilance plan that guarantees the lives and physical integrity of the sanctioned and the victims of these territories, needs to be verified. 

2) Monitoring the implementation of the differentiated gender dimension of the final peace accord, which is a recognized achievement, but also one that requires additional human and financial resources. It needs continuous precision and verification processes in its implementation with regard to commitments to women and ethnic peoples.

3) Supporting and possibly verifying Resolution 2532 of July 1, 2020 of the UN Security Council, and to invite the Colombian government and all who still find themselves armed to welcome the cease fire as an imperative, ethical need that will secure the signed peace process and provide humanitarian relief to rural communities violently targeted by multiple groups. The final peace accord established its centrality in the victims. Therefore, creating an enabling environment for peace is fundamental to providing a suitable response to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and advancing in the achievement of a complete peace.

Colombia has a social movement shaped by people that have contributed to the construction of peace. We have immense gratitude for the international community, because we have unitedly advocated for negotiated ends to armed conflict, the adoption of mechanisms for judicial placement of various armed groups, and an impetus for humanitarian initiatives as forms of resolving our conflicts and reconstructing a democratic society in a socially and environmentally conscious state of law. 

Tags: Gender Perspective, National Security Guarantees Commission, Protection of Excombatants, UN Verification Mission, United Nations, Victims

Statement from the Cooperation Space for Peace (ECP): Stop the Massacres

September 3, 2020

On August 27, the Cooperation Space for Peace  (Espacio de Cooperación para la Paz – ECP) published a statement, signed by WOLA and 28 other international and national civil society organizations, urging the Colombian government to effectively advance investigations that identify the material and intellectual authors behind the recent upsurge in massacres, of which many include adolescents.

The State’s civil presence is limited or wholly absent in the areas where the massacres occurred, which has enabled illegal armed groups to seize territorial control, intimidate civilians, and profit from illicit activities. The statement argues that fully and comprehensively implementing the 2016 peace accord and engaging in peace dialogues with the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación, ELN) would help dismantle the criminal organizations responsible for these massacres.

You can read the original, Spanish version of the statement here.
Below is the English text:

International Civil Society Organizations condemn the massacres of children and adolescents that recently occurred in Colombia and demand an effective and immediate response from the Colombian State that will halt this humanitarian crisis.

As international civil society organizations, we denounce the upsurge in violence against children and adolescents. We also condemn the assassinations of human rights defenders, community leaders and individuals undergoing the reintegrationprocess, to whom the State has a responsibility according to the Declaration of the rights and duties of the individuals, institutions, and groups that promote and protect human rights and universally recognized fundamental liberties. 

We offer our condolences and solidarity to the victims’ families during these difficult and painful moments. 

So far this year, 33 massacres and 97 assassinations of human rights defenders have been documented by the United Nations, of which 45 have been verified. The majority of the massacres have been committed in rural areas of the Antioquia, Cauca, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Chocó, Córdoba, Valle del Cauca, Casanare, Atlántico, Arauca, Huila, Magdalena, Tolima, Caldas, and Meta departments. These are territories where the State’s civil presence is limited or wholly absent. This has enabled illegal armed groups to seize territorial control, intimidate civilians, and profit from illicit activities linked to drug trafficking. 

The adoption of a public policy for the dismantling of criminal organizations, including those deemed successors and support networks for paramilitary groups, within the implementation of the Final Peace Accord with the FARC as well as the seeking of a negotiated agreement with the ELN, is necessary to ensure a definitive end to Colombia’s armed conflict.

As international civil society organizations, we exhort the Colombian government and State to fulfill their constitutional duty as well as their international obligations derived from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Security Council Resolution 1612 of 2005, which granted special protection to children and adolescents. The Colombian government and State are urged to make quick and effective advances in the investigations that will identify each of the material and intellectual authors of these crimes and bring them to justice to be tried and convicted.

Tags: massacres, Youth